THE EFFECT Loses Its Cause — Review


Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell | Photo: Marc Brenner

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 14, 2024 10:35 AM

Name a play The Effect and you’ll raise questions about causes. And, indeed, Lucy Prebble’s stunner from 2012 poses an excellent quandary: how much can we trust the truth of our emotions in the age of overstimulation? That’s what its protagonists, Connie and Tristan, begin to wonder as they fall for each other during a medical trial for a new antidepressant.

The question is one on which The Weekend has built an entire musical career in the decade since its premiere: is it love or just the drugs?

But its first major revival, an obnoxiously sleek London transfer directed by Jamie Lloyd and in performance at (where else?) The Shed, cares shockingly little about Prebble’s investigation, drowning it out in an over-aestheticized production for the sensory-overloaded Euphoria crowd.

The work being somewhat about medical malpractice, allow me to commit my own bit of journalistic misconduct and compare this staging to a previous one. Because, beneath its smoke screens and thumping club beats lies quite an excellent story. (I saw its comparatively unassuming off-Broadway premiere in 2016.)

Absent this production’s Yeezus-era vibe – Soutra Gilmour’s chic all-white hoodies and bare, light-up floor set; Jon Clark’s blinding flashes of light; Michael Asante’s unnecessarily ever-present (but admittedly bumping) music; and George Dennis’ sound design, which so crisply amplifies the cast’s speech it becomes an almost uncanny valley lip-sync – you could actually focus on the relationship cautiously blooming at the play’s core.

Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell | Photo: Marc Brenner

Then, Connie and Tristan’s connection felt as organic as it could be; the unfussy playfulness of the actors’ chemistry contrasting with the clinical sterility of their situation, allowing us to wonder how real our own emotions are, and how much their origins should even matter. Are they falling in love because of a charming wink, or tender graze of the arm, or because their dosage is being upped? As one of the trial administrators posits, “everything’s physical, ultimately.”

Their story now seemingly taking place at the club renders these questions moot. How could we not doubt the results of an experiment contaminated with so many variables?

Lloyd’s contrivances are so top-down overstimulating that the volunteers’ connection feels beside the point, leaving Taylor Russell and Paapa Essiedu’s alluring lead characterizations — ostensibly the play’s raison d'etre — entirely secondary.

Their supervisors (Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) similarly suffer from these atmosphere-forward machinations, distracting from their personal backstory, which hints at questionable scientific ethics.

It’s hard not to feel cynical about a revival like this, content in hanging its analysis of the work on the title – all effect, no motive. Prebble’s work is strong enough to peer through, but gets lost in a presentation too high on its own supply.

The Effect is in performance through March 31, 2024 at The Shed on West 30th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.